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Full text of "My Country And My People"

LITERARY    LIFE                        219

V. PROSE

There was very little good prose in the classical Chinese
literature. This statement perhaps sounds extremely unfair
and needs clarification. There are many samples of high-
flown, rhetorical prose, excellent in their way and possessing
great virtuosity; there are also many samples of poetic prose,
which by their cadence of vowels are eminently singable. In
fact, the regular way of reading prose whether at schools or in
private was to sing them. There is really no appropriate word
for this type of reading in English; the so-called "singing" is to
read the lines aloud with a kind of regulated and exaggerated
intonation, not according to any particular tune, but following
more or less the tonal values of the vowels in a general tune,
somewhat similar to the reading of the "lesson" by the dean of
an Episcopalian church, but with the syllables a great deal
more drawn out.

This type of poetic prose is especially bad in the euphuistic
compositions of the fifth and sixth centuries, which developed
directly out of the fu, or high-flown prose, used in imperial
eulogies, as unnatural as any court poetry and as awkward as a
Russian ballet. Such euphuistic prose, running in parallel
constructions of alternate sentences of four and six syllablesó
hence called the ssulin or "four-six style," also called p*ien?i
or "parallel style"ówas possible only in a dead and highly
artificial language, entirely cut apart from the living realities
of the age. But neither euphuistic prose, nor poetic prose, nor
high-flown rhetorical prose is good prose. These may be called
good prose only by a wrong literary standard. By good prose
I mean prose which has the sweep and rhythm of a good chat
by the fireside, such as used by the great story-tellers like Defoe
or Swift or BoswelL Now it is clear that such prose is possible
only in a living, and not in an artificial, language. Extremely
good prose there is in the non-classical literature of novels
written in the spoken language, but we are speaking of classical
writings.

The use of the literary language, with its peculiarly crisp
style, makes this almost impossible. First, good prose must be